Thursday, 6 March 2008

Experiments in Games Design

I have said it before, but it is worth reiterating: I am not a game designer, and am not a wannabe game designer. I am, however, interested in the nuts and bolts of making games, and in the whole process of making rewarding interaction happen in games, and the last year has been an interesting exercise in catch up as I have used some pretty basic middleware to start making little scratchy game prototypes. It all harks back to the days when I was fiddling with BASIC on the ZX Spectrum, and was buried under RPG rulebooks, 1/300th microtanks, and Avalon Hill boxes. The presentation I gave on Tuesday was a real reminder that I have other stuff to do, and I have a monograph in my head that needs to get itself on paper, so I figure I will have to shelve my little hobbyist attempts at game making for a while.

Before I put everything away and get onto the serious business of writing, however, I thought I would leave a record of what I thought I was doing with these little games.

Penguins and Polar Bears was all about deferred control – seeing if there was any satisfaction in forcing a bifurcation between looking and doing that meant the visual attention was split. It is a shame that it doesn’t completely work – the randomness of the reset renders it a non-game after a while, but it verges on the successful in a way that really frustrates. So near and yet so far. As a system it appeals to me – it has a balance and symetry that I find pleasing. Perhaps one day I will have the eureka moment I need to solve the gameplay problem.

SCMIV was more of the same, although it taught me more about my ignorance of a bit of PC gaming (the venerable Sokoban) than anything else. Another attempt at splitting control and effect. It is far more successful as a game, however, and tends to get mixed reviews erring more on the positive than the negative. I have an almost finished sequel that will probably never see the light of day that adds an anti-match 3 mechanic (three aligned blocks of the same type leads to meltdown) and so ratchets up the sarcasm.

Particle Tango was another experiment in taking ontrol away from any avatar and externalising it. I was incredibly busy when I made it, and yet wanted to nail the basic mechanic, so it is more an indicator of possibility than a fully polished game, but I think the setup has legs. This then got a second treatment in Flight of the Snowman, which took the control scheme and dumped it into a single wrapped screen environment (which is moderately successful again), but I have a version in my minds eye that is much closer to a platform/exploration game that would really work. Having seen the pulling on stars that happens in Super Mario Galaxy I am even more convinced that there is something there I could expand on. In that other life I occasionally consider where I have an independent income and no kids. Sort of a geeky version of the Woolfian room of one’s own.

Shush was a success. It did everything I wanted it to do. A lot of people find it a little too easy, but I really like the loop of interaction, the basic premise, and what I think is an original control methodology that works. It is the only thing that has made me want to grapple with Actionscript and get myself a wider audience. Add some decent audio and it could hold its own, I think, against a fair few of the more casual freeware games out there.

So Hail Caesar! Is a bit of a swansong. It answers a brief I give my students every year, so it will be useful as a tool in class. It is fairly original, and I like its brutal modelling of a simplified version of Roman political understanding. It was made with my 7 year old daughter’s input throughout (the audio screams were only added afterwards, so it remained pretty anodyne) and was a nice exercise we went through together (one thing I will continue to do is make little games with her in GameMaker – her artwork snapped on my phone camera, dropped into the game space and quickly assigned behaviours and we have little minigames up in minutes).

Things learned? I have no instinctive feel for faking Z depth in 2D. I am weirdly wedded to surfaces and left/right up/down thinking. Good ideas often change radically in the process of making. I can’t really draw.

And that I am too busy to make games.

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